Notes Toward a Theological Definition of Poetry

Richard Wilbur in a poem entitled "The Writer" describes the relationship between suffering and writing. He recounts a time when a starling flew into his daughter’s room and, unable to fly back out, battered itself against a window. Two years later, his daughter’s striving at the typewriter keys to shape a story is much like the pain the bird underwent. Notice how Wilbur pays attention to sensory details, invokes metaphors such as ship’s cargo, and also wins through to a sense of hope at the end:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Wilbur’s account has a particular power. He, like his daughter and the starling, has struggled to find the right words to sum up these events. He has worked to make sure that every sound and idea in the poem counts. I begin with it in full because it reminds us that poetry is a matter of story and language, observation and delight. Its insights are often hard-won. While "The Writer" never mentions Christian doctrines such as the cross or the fall of humanity, the poem nevertheless resonates with a Christian worldview. The events that Wilbur writes of assume a world where language matters, where the senses matter, where truth is something worth suffering for, where loss and gain are present in the midst of our struggles. A theological definition of poetry must account for, among other things, poetry’s place in God’s good creation, the impact of sin on our words and symbols, and a sense of how God restores us and our world. Each of these is necessary to bring a full-sense of what poetry is and does.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding